South Carolina no longer stores medical equipment like masks and gowns, but some in Columbia want to revive a stockpile following the struggle to obtain vital supplies in the pandemic.

Gov. Henry McMaster’s AccelerateSC team heard from committees this week that recommended a 28-day, $16.7 million stockpile. The question of a stockpile came up again Thursday among a group of state senators discussing policy aimed at rebuilding South Carolina.

The state does not currently have any stockpile in place, according to a spokesman at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), and it is unclear when it ended. Most medical equipment funneled through DHEC and county emergency departments has come from donations or a federal stockpile. Medical providers, from hospitals to nursing homes, have had to rely on what they could purchase on the open market, according to organizations.

‘Not enough PPE in the world’

The first step toward implementing a state stockpile would be a feasibility and management study that could be approved as early as mid-June as lawmakers begin doling out federal aid, according to S.C. Hospitals Association Policy and Finance Vice President Christian Soura, who serves on the AccelerateSC board.

Since March, DHEC has worked with the federal government to receive personal protective equipment (PPE) for nursing homes, hospitals and emergency responders. A spokesman told Statehouse Report, City Paper‘s sister publication, that supplies have been shipped this month, and another set of supplies will be shipped in June for nursing homes.

“Personal protection has been a problem for nursing homes,” said Camden Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen. On Thursday, he addressed DHEC leadership at the Senate select committee meeting about the crisis, which started as a hotspot in his home district.

“I know we didn’t get the PPE we wanted and expected,” Sheheen said, while adding praise for the agency. “I hope we have stockpiles from here on out.”

Throughout the pandemic, nursing homes have had shortages of equipment, according to Randy Lee, president of nursing home organization South Carolina Health Care Association.

“There is obviously not enough PPE in the world for the pandemic, and we are continuing to struggle every day to find proper equipment,” Lee said in an interview. “We have come to realize there is not a gown for sale anywhere.”

He said facilities around the state have prioritized what PPE they have obtained, and that they “are not sending uncovered staff members to treat residents in need.” Some facilities have also contracted with local seamstresses for gowns and masks, he said.

Soura said hospitals in the state are spending five- or six-times the amount they normally spend on PPE as they use more and have to pay more for scarce supplies.

Lawmakers see value in a stockpile

For Lexington Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy, chief on the list of making the state better prepared for the next disaster is having a medical stockpile in place.

“In the event we need PPE in the future, we’re not on a list with every other state in the United States, and we have our own resources,” said Shealy, who is serving on the Senate’s Re-Open South Carolina Select Committee. “We should have it readily available so the county EMDs (emergency management departments) have a place to get it instead of nursing homes getting it off of Amazon.”

House Medical, Military and Municipal Affairs Chair Leon Howard, D-Richland, said there has been a stockpile discussion in the House.

“We should invest more. I don’t know how much more, but we should take a look at how much we should invest,” Howard said.

As of publication on May 27, DHEC had not responded to questions related to the former stockpile and its demise. By December 2008, however, a three-year-old effort for a stockpile established to respond to a viral influenza pandemic was threatened by drying up federal funds, according to a DHEC report.

“Federal funding for the pandemic influenza preparedness program has ended, and no state funds have been appropriated to continue public health preparedness efforts for pandemic influenza. This means that any future pandemic preparedness activities must be funded by the state or by redirecting federal funds for public health preparedness,” the report stated.

The stockpile was mostly focused on pharmaceuticals, such as antivirals and vaccines. The stockpile facility, located at an undisclosed state park, was finished in April 2008, but the report called for the need for funding a second phase of construction.